Book of the Week: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
Book 15: The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
I'm very late to the party on this book. It made a big splash when it first came out, but I was preoccupied with comprehensive exams. I'm surprised it took me this long to find it.
This book is for anyone who loves the fiction of John Irving, or Herman Melville, or for anyone who loves baseball. This book is especially for anyone who is obsessed with Melville and baseball and Irving.
Its the late 2000s and a undersized unrecruited shortstop phenom named Henry Skrimshander (a word used by Melville in Moby Dick to describe the plural of skrimshaw, carved ivory) gets discovered by rising sophomore catcher Mike Schwartz while playing American Legion summer ball. Schwartz will become the whaler who carves Henry into the professional baseball player he will become.
Schwartz plays college ball at Westish College, a prestigious liberal arts college on the shores of Lake Michigan in Wisconsin. Their team is named "The Harpooners", one of the institutions many references to Herman Melville, who once travelled to the town Westish is located and gave a lecture. College president Guert Affenlight made an Ivy League career as an English professor and Melville scholar before returning to his alma mater to be the president. When he returned to Westish from Harvard, his high school daughter chose not to return with him. While finishing high school at her east coast boarding school, she falls in love and runs away with an architect who was a guest speaker at the school. When the novel begins she re-enters her father's life four years later when she moves to Westish to escape her failed marriage. Meanwhile, her father Guert finds himself on dangerous ground when, for the first time in his professional career, he entertains an illicit relationship with a student: Henry's roommate Owen Dunne. A smart, burgeoning academic and baseball player that is affectionally referred to as "the Buddha" for his thoughtful and disaffected approach to life.
I said you will love this book if you are a Melville fan. The book is rife with obvious and not-so-obvious allusions. The local bar is called Bartleby's and Guert is the name of Melville's cousin who is said to have been the inspiration for Billy Budd, just to name a couple. Speaking of Billy Budd, there are times when Henry feels very much like a Billy Budd figure; although in the end, Guert's demise is perhaps closer to to Billy's. At time Guert is Ahab, at times Mike is. Mike is a mirror-image of Guert and so it is fitting that the image should pass from one to the other.
I said you will love this book if you are a baseball fan. Protagonist Henry is a "natural" when it comes to fielding. He is obsessed with perfecting the art, reading and re-reading The Art of Fielding by his idol Aparicio Rodriguez, hall of fame shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals (a fictionalization of Luis Aparicio?). Henry works with Mike to perfect his fielding technique until he eventually ties Rodriguez's NCAA record for consecutive games without an error. But that's when Henry's journey becomes tragic. He falls prey to every ballplayer's nightmare, the yips. He drops from a presumptive first round draft pick to a college student in the midst of a "spiritual crisis" as his friend Mike calls it. Having lost all significance for his life, he turns his back on his team and his friends, and must find his way back to the team and to his friendship with Mike having lost his innocence and his "natural" talent for the game.
I said if you like the fiction of John Irving, you will like this book. It feels like many of Irving's novels. The pastoral setting of the college on the shore of Lake Michigan tends to feel a lot more like New England and most of the characters tend to some how end up relocating to Wisconsin from New England. But the similarity to Irving goes beyond that. The writing style, the sense of purpose each character possesses, the subtle literary and religious references, all make this a great read for folks who love contemporary American fiction in Irving's vein.
It's almost time for the College World Series ... read it for God's sake!